or “How The New Edition of This Book Beloved By Knitters, Came About….”
Today I thought I’d give an insight into how we put together the new edition of “The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales”, that classic, much-loved book on the history of Yorkshire knitting…
Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley produced six books together, mainly for London publishers J. M Dent & Sons; Ella as writer and Marie as illustrator.
Marie had trained as a wood engraver at the prestigious Slade art school. Ella was a folklorist. In the 1930s, the women went on a walking tour of the Dales and soon returned; living in a caravan, whilst they documented the changing way of life of the Dalespeople.
Marie later said:
“It was an open book, to us – and no-one else was writing it.”
In 1941, the women bought a tumbledown cottage in Askrigg. Their 1942 book, ‘Yorkshire Cottage’, documented its restoration. Ella and Marie brought out a new book every 18 months – 2 years. Ella’s writing style was haunting, beautiful, elegaic. We have no way of knowing how different ‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ might have been, had she lived to write it. Ella died unexpectedly in 1945 of chronic high blood pressure. The years that followed were to be Marie’s longest gap without publishing a book. Marie probably had to convince her publishers that she too, could write. Almost all her subsequent books would be co-written with Joan Ingilby. They worked together, at opposite ends of the same room, and wrote seamlessly.
‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ was commissioned around 1947 by Harry J Scott, legendary editor of ‘Dalesman’ magazine and friend of Marie. It was to be her first collaboration with Joan. The women were to write over 30 books on Yorkshire history and lore, together. They received the Yorkshire Archaeological Society’s Silver Medal in 1993 and the MBE in 1997.
‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ was originally meant to be 12,000 words but was 27,000 when the women posted it to Scott, in 1948. It then languished on Scott’s desk til finally seeing the light of day in 1951. Post-War paper shortages were cited as the reason the book wasn’t published immediately. It was to be reprinted many times, and became one of Dalesman’s best loved titles. Also one of the books most loved by knitters the world over. Many might be surprised to learn neither of the women were knitters.
Years ago, almost the only in print source about the history of knitting, was the Bishop of Leicester, Richard Rutt’s ‘The History of Hand-Knitting’. (Batsford, 1987). Like many knitters of my generation, I loved this book and was intrigued by mention of a book about the history of Yorkshire hand-knitting, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ by Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby. It was in the days before the internet, so my only chance of finding it was to scour secondhand bookshops.
Even in Hay-On-Wye, ‘the town of books’, where I scored many a then-obscure (in the UK) Elizabeth Zimmermann book, I failed to find Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s book. Years went by. Every bookshop I ever went in, I looked for The Book. It took on a special significance; became my personal Holy Grail. Forever out of reach.
Then on a day trip to Haworth and the Yorkshire Moors… I struck lucky. I found The Book. It had been reprinted by Dalesman. And was in the Tourist Information Centre.
I still have that edition and it is probably my most well-read, most dog eared book. Pages fell out, I read it to pieces. It could have been terrible, for all I knew, all those years I searched high and low for it. But it was brilliant.
Several years ago, I wrote to the current editor of Dalesman and discovered they had no plans to re-print it. And alongside Shannon Okey at Cooperative Press, I contacted the lovely Yorkshire lady who currently holds the copyright and got permission to go ahead with a new edition.
We wanted to make it available to a whole new audience, but also make an edition that would contain something new and be worth buying for those folk like me, who over the years got one or two different editions. The text is a re-print of the classic First Edition.
I wrote a Foreword because I was aware of the incredible reputation of Miss H & Miss I as Yorkshire historians (they both were awarded the MBE in 1997 for their work preserving Yorkshire lore and history, and worked on a prolific 40 plus books). ‘Old Hand-Knitters’ is maybe their most loved book. But the people who love it, many are unaware of the writers’ record as social historians, and I wanted to put it back where it belonged, in the broader context of the county’s history. I was also aware many knitters would love to know more about the women. I wanted to put them in context – Yorkshire greats like their friend, J.B.Priestley.
We also added an extra Appendix of our own – with the background pattern and charts for the oldest extant dated Dales gloves, the George Walton gloves. I travelled to various places researching for the book.
At York Reference Library, I found back issues of Dalesman, with numerous interviews with the ladies, over decades.
I also visited the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (Misses H & I received their Silver Medal in 1993, and the women deposited all their extant notes, including a sparse few for ‘The Old Hand-Knitters’, at their archive in Leeds. I made several trips to the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. Marie’s personal collection of agricultural implements, knitting sticks etc was the foundation of their collection.
One day in the Dales Countryside archive, I was sitting opposite a gentleman who had an accordion. I was concentrating hard, documenting a Dales glove. Every now and then, he’d play a few bars of a long lost Yorkshire folk song; he was finding music notation. The music was so haunting and beautiful and so I couldn’t help striking up a conversation with him about his research. It turned out he was also one of the founders of the museum and had been the women’s neighbour for years. He gave me a brilliant insight into their work.I couldn’t help wondering what were the odds of bumping into their next door neighbour, whilst researching their lives – quite a few miles away from where they had lived.
Another odyssey we went on in our quest to find Miss Hartley and Miss Ingilby, was a trip up to the Wordsworth Trust’s Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, Cumbria. What started as a casual enquiry about a pair of gloves Marie had sketched around 1947 or 8, turned into a valued friendship with the wonderful curator there, who let me examine the George Walton gloves and somehow this led to us making 1800 period costume, and spending a weekend knitting and spinning at Dove Cottage.
I documented the George Walton glove – not one of the later Mary Allen gloves, but an earlier and much more subtle and complex design. The left glove and right had variations. We enlisted the help of designers and glove experts Tom van Deijnen, tomofholland.com , and “Corvid” to work out the intricacies of the design I had documented, and between the three of us, we came up with a pattern for the gloves.
I could never have imagined, in the 1980s, when I started looking for an OOP copy of the book, one day I would be involved with its resurrection. Nor that, travelling across Yorkshire and Cumbria to put this edition together, I would make friends and acquaintances along the way.
‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ is available here. (Digital and hard copies).
And the George Walton pattern is also available as a download, via Amazon. Details on Ravelry page, here.
I will put up details of where hard copies can be got in the UK, when I have that info for yous.